Touring the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, my experience in the program began with a critical examination of the inclusion of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and non-violence in the narrative of the Civil Rights Movement, while other more militant leaders and tactics were excluded. Thinking of their place in our collective historical memory, throughout the following weeks I began to contemplate the possibility of modern day equivalents of such tactics and their place in achieving liberation.
I question the value of working within our current system to alleviate unjust conditions while our complicity in the same system continues unchallenged.
While this internal conversation began with a mere abstract conception of proper tactics in the struggle for freedom, listening and engaging with Dr. Natsu Saito grounded me in a broader yet more concrete paradigm. In her view, centering the decolonization process of the United States is necessary before any marginalized group can work toward equality, as colonization began a process of racialization and hierarchical rule which informs every crevice of our current system of government and society. Examining reality pragmatically I could only conclude that a variety of tactics are necessary to solve immediate and longer-term injustices.
Yet, I question the value of working within our current system to alleviate unjust conditions while our complicity in the same system continues unchallenged. To some extent, I had previously considered these shortcomings and sought out ways to deconstruct and even attack our present systems. Now, however, I wish to analyze the dangers, limitations, and possible starting points for work that refuses to conform with systems and institutions built on stolen land and stolen labor.
When working in existing institutions, marginalized people must often conform to certain rules of etiquette set by the dominant culture in order to be credible. These rules may include ways of talking or dressing, which would enable a person to be respected in a professional setting. When performing this respectable version of ourselves, marginalized bodies risk being perceived as different from the rest of their groups, presenting a model others can and should follow. The biggest danger in this game many of us must play is adopting and internalizing this narrative, causing us to distance ourselves from our communities and only climb further along in the hierarchical ladder of power. Overcoming this would require all of our work to center the voices and experiences of the most marginalized and vulnerable. This is a simple statement, yet it actually requires a difficult commitment to our communities and a renunciation to the deeply tempting material benefits we gain from aligning with those in power.
The biggest danger in this game many of us must play is adopting and internalizing this narrative, causing us to distance ourselves from our communities and only climb further along in the hierarchical ladder of power.
While I understood the dangers of working within the system, the conception that work toward equality that does not challenge the colonial state simply reinforces racial and hierarchical rule was personally revolutionizing. For me, this really legitimized the need for the construction of a completely different model of political and economic organization; one that is not built upon principles of domination and vertical power. In imagining an alternative, Professor Ward Churchill’s book signing and discussion on self-determination offered interesting insights. Through his work on colonization, he understood the two hundred nation-states recognized by the Untied Nations as unrepresentative of the thousand of nations on the planet that were consolidated into states through colonial violence. While it would be easy to suggest returning to an original organization of nations, it is both politically and socially impossible. The reality is that through migration and mass displacement over centuries, most people do not exist within a society that can return to its original form if there ever was one.
Returning to a pre-colonial ideal of nations in order to achieve self-determination seems impossible.
In the end, returning to a pre-colonial ideal of nations in order to achieve self-determination seems impossible. Yet, I believe that a cultural movement can begin to formulate what our individual nations were and what they could be, even if they are detached from formal institutions. While touring the Clark Atlanta University Art Gallery, Dr. Maurita Poole described the importance of black artists being “in conversation with each other,” including their predecessors as well as their contemporaries. To her, these artists could not fully realize their own image and their own sense of self without a context with which they could compare themselves. I think this is true not just for artists, but for intellectuals and politicians as well. At the moment, I imagine that promoting and legitimizing the arts and culture of marginalized peoples can bring a certain level of unity and lead them forward to a path of real self-determination.
Still, the work of dismantling the system cannot be undertaken with arts alone, and the topic of violence and its place in this struggle is often contested. To that point, I suggest considering limits to the amount and level of violence used in the struggle for liberation, measuring it in anticipation of retaliatory violence from the state. The state often responds to movements for self-determination with violence even when they are completely peaceful. So in reality, any measure that does not work within the system should strategize keeping in mind the violent response of the state, regardless of their use of violent or non-violent measures. In addition, when using violence against the state, we should remain vigilant that the violence does not seep into the movements themselves and attack other marginalized and vulnerable people in the struggle.
We can begin to undo this cycle of violence by healing first individually and hopefully collectively in order to imagine a truly fair and just society.
Working toward creating a new system can seem to be the only true method in achieving equality and freedom. However, this can be equally as dangerous. I worry that as marginalized people responding to state violence for centuries, our subconscious internalized those same forms of violence in order to survive. In attempting to rebuild a new more equal system, we may fall back and recreate hierarchical and violent power structures that will not lead to real liberation for all. In a lecture on restorative justice, Dr. David Hooker explored the effect of generational trauma. When faced with violence, exploitation, and even exclusion we respond in defensive ways to protect ourselves. I believe that our inherent response mirrors the violence perpetrated in the first place. While this is necessary and justified, these patterns of response are passed on through generations, perpetually tying us to the perpetrator’s initial way of interacting, which is steeped in violence and power. The process of detaching ourselves from these shackles is disturbingly difficult. However, we can begin to undo this cycle of violence by healing first individually and hopefully collectively in order to imagine a truly fair and just society.
These reflections on the value of different strategies to achieve true liberation are very broad, yet I believe that keeping these principles in mind is necessary to even begin formulating concrete solutions. As time passes by, the struggle for freedom seems to grow harder and those pulling the strings even more evil, calling us to action. But we must remember that it is easy to try to fix a problem and only make it worse. It is difficult and humbling to accept the reality that unless we think and strategize carefully and in community, we risk contributing to the same suffering, which we denounce. Regardless of what our politics tell us of Martin or Malcolm or anyone else in the Civil Rights Movement, their time has passed. The question is, what will we do now?